shingles

A close-up look at the blisters and rash caused by a case of shingles. (Courtesy photo)

Although this time of year is normally associated with flu vaccines, adults should also consider getting a vaccine for shingles. Anyone who’s had chickenpox is vulnerable to the viral infection, which saddles victims with painful rashes and blistering.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles, also known as herpes zoster, in their lifetime. There are an estimated 1 million cases of shingles each year in this country.”

One such case occurred to Telluride Elementary School ESL teacher Rachel Lackey, who was afflicted in August the night before the first day of school.

“I noticed a rash on my back,” Lackey said. “I also felt a tingling, prickling sensation on my abdomen on the same side. I hoped it was a spider bite but feared it was shingles, as I knew someone else who had been through it and recognized the symptoms.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some, it can be intense. … Most commonly, the shingles rash develops as a stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso. Sometimes the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face… Symptoms include a red rash that begins a few days after the pain, fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over, and itching.”

After discovering her rash, Lackey said, “I went to the med center and they gave me Valtrex (a pill that fights chickenpox ). I thought I had caught it early. It was not bad the first week and I lived life like before, riding my bike and drinking beer. Then the rash spread around my torso and felt like I had a hot iron on me or like a swarm of red ants. I was burning. Even my urine burned!”

The problem with the varicella-zoster virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles is that it sticks around after chickenpox victims recover, lying dormant for years in the nervous system near the spinal cord and brain. As WebMD puts it, “Doctors don’t know why, but sometimes the virus ‘wakes up’ and travels along nerve fibers to your skin.”

When that happened to Lackey, it made her feel “like my skin was ripped off and I was raw. Like horrible road rash. I could not bear for anything to touch me. I could not wear a shirt or sleep with even a sheet touching me. It hurt to drive going over bumps. I couldn’t take showers because it hurt too much.

“Even a breeze or walking through a spider web was excruciating. It lasted six weeks. And after the burning subsided, the itching was intolerable,” she added.  

Lackey, 48, is considered young for a shingles sufferer. Indeed, hospitals were once advised against administering a shingles vaccine to anyone under 60; the age limit was recently lowered to 55. To this day, health care insurance won’t cover vaccinations for anyone younger than 50.

Dr. Sharon Grundy, a primary care physician at Telluride Regional Medical Center, said, “There are two adult vaccinations. The preferred vaccination is the Shingrix, which was released last year. This is a dead viral vaccination which will have longer efficacy and improved activity.” TRMC has administered Shingrix to 109 patients in the last year.

Shingles itself is not contagious. You can’t spread the condition to another person. However, if another person comes into contact with the rash and fresh blisters of a shingles victim, the varicella-zoster virus could spread and cause chickenpox.

Said Grundy, “We see shingles regularly in the clinic and the ER.” According to records, the med center has treated 45 cases of shingles since Nov. 1, 2017.

Lackey said she treated her shingles with Valtrex, over-the- counter topical Benadryl, Chinese herbs, vitamins, oatmeal baths and “acupuncture to relieve the heat” below her skin.

Shingles “was the worst thing to endure,” Lackey said, vowing to get a vaccine when she turns 55. “I have to say I am surprised how many people get this. One in 3 they say. I spoke with many people who had it. Some get it in their eye. I even heard of a case of someone who had it in their throat. You do not want this virus. It was devastating.”